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NATO after Ukraine

WARSAW – Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has called into question NATO’s willingness and ability to protect its East European flank. For a country like Poland, NATO’s lofty principle of collective defense, while essential to national security, remains, in the absence of appropriate military capabilities and on-the-ground practicability, merely a political commitment.

When Poland joined NATO 15 years ago, it was understood that Article 5 – the “all for one, and one for all” principle that provides for a collective response to an armed attack on any member – would be the cornerstone of the country’s security. Since then, the Allies have found numerous ways to anchor the obligations arising from Article 5 in operational practice. The new Strategic Concept, adopted at the Alliance’s 2010 Lisbon summit, established collective defense as one of its three main tasks, underscoring the importance of developing contingency plans, organizing joint exercises and training, and creating “visible assurance” within member states. As a defining strategy, this agenda meets Polish expectations.

The contingency plans negotiated by Poland in 2008-2010 include strengthening the country militarily in the event of aggression from the East. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia implemented similar plans.

Another practical step to improve NATO’s readiness to defend its eastern flank has been the organization of joint military exercises, such as “Steadfast Jazz,” held in the Baltics and Poland in 2013. These exercises re-affirmed NATO’s seriousness about defending its eastern members.

No less important is the establishment of NATO institutions in Poland, in particular its Signal Battalion and Joint Force Training Center, which Poland managed to retain despite reforms of NATO’s chain of command. If nothing else, the institutional presence strengthens Poles’ sense of security – for many of us, the more NATO we have, the better.

The same principle applies to NATO’s Security Investment Program. The fund has already spent more than €650 million ($835 million), for example, on modernizing Poland’s air, naval, and logistical bases.

Finally, under a June 2011 agreement, a United States aviation detachment, which organizes joint training of F-16 and Hercules pilots, is operating in Łask, in central Poland – the first time that American troops have been permanently stationed on Polish territory. This model of maintaining US forces in Central Europe should be developed further, because it is a symbolic confirmation of America’s commitment to the region.

These practical measures come at a time when Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has dispelled doubts about NATO’s importance. But recognizing potential dangers is not the same as developing an effective response. The strategic environment today is a far cry from that of 1997, when NATO leaders backed the membership bids of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, and awarded Ukraine and Russia privileged partner status. Indeed, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine compels NATO to redefine its relationship with Russia and Ukraine. In any case, the Alliance’s September 2014 summit in Newport, Wales will need to develop a new strategic vision of this relationship.

To do so, NATO must answer four key questions. First, how committed is the US to Europe? Although US President Barack Obama has shifted his focus toward the Asia-Pacific, reducing US forces in Europe, this needn’t weaken the Alliance’s capabilities or response times. But Europeans must nonetheless continue to advocate for the overriding importance of NATO’s transatlantic bond.

Second, how committed is Europe to NATO? The 2008 financial crisis led to severe defense cuts, a dangerous policy that must be reversed as soon as possible. This is not just a question of money; Europe must also develop military specializations and joint capabilities that enhance the Alliance as a whole. If Europe’s own commitment is lacking, what hope is there for continuing US engagement?

Third, how should NATO redefine its relations with Russia? In the wake of events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russia’s privileged partnership with NATO is evidently outdated. This does not mean that the NATO-Russia Council should be disbanded. But NATO’s approach to Russia must change if it is to contain Russia’s destabilizing aggression in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia. This is why the Alliance needs to develop a new smart containment policy toward Russia that relies on political, diplomatic, financial, and military tools.

Finally, how can we strengthen relations with Ukraine so that its citizens feel neither alone nor doomed to conflict and failure? The West must show that it is politically on Ukraine’s side and encourage its pro-Western course. NATO should then strengthen military cooperation with Ukraine by implementing the provisions of the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership. This means that the Alliance will need to become actively engaged in reforming and re-arming the Ukrainian armed forces.

NATO continues to be as relevant to today’s global order as it has been since 1949. But, in addition to shaping strategic priorities, it must have practical plans in place on the ground.

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